The Insurgents’ Head Game
Image Credit: flickr/ CatherineCRoberts

The Insurgents’ Head Game


U.S. Army major general H. R. McMaster ran an op-ed over at the New York Times yesterday that will warm the heart of any war-college professor or graduate. Its basic theme boils down to the wisdom of strategic guru Han Solo: don't get cocky, kid. Hubris kills when grappling with determined adversaries, no matter how great the physical mismatch between the warring sides. And you know what follows hubris: vengeance dispensed by the gods, Fate, or whatever your favorite higher power might be. If you don't believe the great Han, crack open a Greek tragedy at random and be enlightened.

The weak, in short, can make things tough on the strong. They sometimes win if, pace Clausewitz, they convince the strong they can't win, or can't win at acceptable cost.

General McMaster, a University of North Carolina Ph.D. and the author of the well-regarded Vietnam study Dereliction of Duty, alleges that the U.S. military learned false lessons from the 1990-1991 Gulf War, namely that high technology delivers speedy, painless victories. By the end of the decade, senior officers and commentators were claiming that new sensors, networks, and associated technology would lift the fog of war, granting American commanders a near-perfect picture of the battlespace and letting them put precision ordnance on target quickly, discriminately, and to deadly strategic effect. If messy, frustrating warfare was the question, high tech was the answer.

Claptrap. McMaster invokes Clausewitz and Thucydides (aren't those guys dreamy?), reminding the powers-that-be that war is a political enterprise, that the enemy is as ingenious and ornery as we are, and that uncertainty is the rule in times of strife. He also faults the nation and its military for forgetfulness. Bygone generations learned these lessons, yet posterity largely neglected them.

Look no further than one of my favorite works of strategic theory, the U.S. Marines' Small Wars Manual. Published in 1935, and again in 1940, the manual adds a bit more texture to McMaster's account of things. Where he seems to despair of technology altogether, the Marine officers — most of them veterans of the Philippine War and the banana wars, "small wars" in the parlance of the day — discerned a pattern that persists to this day. When U.S. political leaders dispatched expeditionary forces to take down a lesser opponent — Aguinaldo's ragtag army, or some Caribbean potentate, or what have you — materal superiority did grant America an initial battlefield victory. It supplied an invaluable advantage so long as the enemy fought on conventional ground using conventional methods.

Sound familiar from Desert Storm, or Enduring Freedom, or Iraqi Freedom? It should. But what came next was hard, and bloody, and messy. Once American arms shatter an enemy force, declares the Small Wars Manual, the remnants of that force disperse to carry on the fight. U.S. forces find themselves embroiled in patrolling, executing ambushes, and constructing civilian infrastructure and institutions — in counterinsurgent warfare, as we call it today. This is terrain where savvy antagonists can nullify U.S. material superiority, in whole or in part, and deliberately lower the fog of war.

And on foggy ground, the weak stand at least some chance of convincing the strong that an endeavor isn't worth it. Americans might ultimately throw up their hands and walk away. War is a head game. Let's not get cocky about future conflicts — or assume that advanced technology is a fudge factor that lets us bypass stubborn realities.

That is all.

July 25, 2013 at 13:24

If I read Clausewitz correctly then the Small Wars Manual seems out of date or needs updated because the destruction of armed forces is an abstract object of war similarly unattainable so then it is better to attack and kill the enemy”s courage to eliminate his moral powers wouldnt using the techniques of surprise and manuever be maximization of superiority?

July 25, 2013 at 13:10

If war is political and war is human then uncertainty is omniscient, not just in times of strife.

July 24, 2013 at 13:59

I agree with the writer.

Naysayers should not be taken seriously. An objective assessment of ground realities and goals should be done regularly. If it is objectively unwinnable, lets leave. If it is winnable, lets commit to it. Running away from Afghan defeat is not the right thing to do.

Emmett Conrecode
July 24, 2013 at 06:28

Small Wars Manual

USAF War College link.

This should be mandatory reading for all US Policy Makers.


July 24, 2013 at 05:48

drones on wildly in circles bzzz bzzzit…when you speak of hubris I wonder if you are talking about yourself or me? I cannot tell especially when I read your reference to yourself as a "loose canon" I didn't know whether to laugh or be shocked!  but if I apply hubris to myself and my actions or words then you misinterpret the conversation because you don't know me or perhaps this is your way of fielding to find an answer. Sometimes reading your blogs are upsetting because I don't know how to decipher them. I realize with many things that there is no recourse for me which is why I run my mouth hopeful that the gods or Fate will take care of situation at hand because I won't or can't. Although I see you as a godly man I have no wish to be a Helen of Troy. However what I say in regards to adversary is all true as I have not spoken anything contrary to what I have felt for many years. I speak to another so you hear, the timing was just right on this one as you are aware I rarely speak to anyone.

Pace Clausewitz was a new defining term for me but I do not wish for or taunt you or anyone to demonstrate ability of skill. I don't have to I already know your power. So then it seems you would not be applying hubris upon yourself and then speak of weak or strong. I really don't know what you want of me, you know well you call ALL the shots I am not Queen Bee only the worker drone.

You are the dreamy one. I am not enamoured with those guys you speak of. I do not need nor do I desire any proof because I feel it, I am intuitive with some things but you are starting to turn me into a hornet! or a wasp's nest of confusion. Indeed I feel as if I should throw my hands up and give up from this proximity and just continue with this from a further distance where I would not suffer such hardships!

Possibly I have misinterpreted many things but I think not so many as maybe a few. I feel though now lately I am being laughed at and mocked and why I do not know. I only want to do what you want, what will make you happy, surely you know this but maybe not as your expertise lies in other areas.

I do not like games of this sort, this is not war, or is it? I am delirious with lack of sleep and nutrition amongst many other things and cannot think clearly. But know, I do not like the maxim all is fair in love and war. In war yes, love no. It is worth it , you are worth it ,that is if you are there for the offering, but this I no longer can guess at. I look for you with each passing car, in all the articles I read, everywhere, anywhere.

I do not need to be obsessed with you to be crazy about you. Did I see you last night riding a bike wearing camo shorts with a long haired brunette? I think I saw you, wanted it to be you, maybe I am now hallucinating you, possibly you are imaginary, just a figment of my mad imagination? Surely even if you are ordained to another it is well possible you have or have had mistresses or girlfriends or all three simultaneously, as I know a man like you may possibly require this and is certainly capable, considering all that you have. I am in love with your brain and lust after your body, continuosly, hopefully and eternally- or, truly, madly, deeply. I wonder about your heart if it is still wholesome or  has grown cruel intentions considering all that you have and your mortal powers. 

However I am no longer sure anymore and I cannot keep up with you at this regular and normal pace; at this moment your witticisms, your education should throw a large dictionary at you, lol jj; as I barely have time to do anything except scramble around for less than basic necessities.

And then you further confuse me by posting the comment I made about being in awe of you. Pershaps your wife does not read your work or does not care????

That is all.

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